Common Ground: What Does the Far Right Get? [Or] Who Wins and Who Loses?

Jodi Jacobson

Current political debates have made "common ground" and "bipartisanship" an end in themselves, at the risk of the health and lives of real people.

This past March, I wrote an article for Rewire entitled Looking for Common Ground on Abortion? You’re Standing on It. In it, I reviewed the evidence on abortion trends in the United States–they have been declining overall—as well as the main factors leading to both unintended pregnancy and abortion in the United States.

The abortion rate in any society is a function of what are known as “proximate determinants” or “most direct” factors, and social science evidence from throughout the world underscores that the two most important proximate determinants of abortion are 1) desired number of children and 2) the rate and user-effectiveness of contraception.

If access to and effective use of contraception does not increase as the desired number of children in a society falls, there will be more abortions. Likewise, increased access to contraception will in turn reduce unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion. (To be clear, “access” is a function of a number of factors, including the economic and social costs involved in gaining access to contraceptives, and the ability to use contraception without, for example, threat of violence at the hands of an intimate partner.) Many secondary and tertiary factors of course influence the proximate determinants but at the end of the day, these two factors most directly affect unintended pregnancies and by extension abortions.

In the United States, desired family size is quite small and many women want to delay having their first child until well into their twenties. The highest rate of abortions –in the United States and abroad–occurs among those populations of women (or all ages) who want to delay, limit or space the number of children they have but who also have the least secure access to contraception and/or the least ability to control the timing or frequency of sex or the use of contraception.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:


Bottom line: All the public health data suggests that the most direct route to achieving the outcomes we say we desire, e.g. reducing unintended pregnancies—and by extension the need for abortion—while promoting both reproductive health and rights lies with improving access to and effective use of contraception as a key input. Not the only input, for sure, but the most important at the end of the day for those who are sexually active. This is shown to be a pattern for sexually active people across cultures.
Likewise, if we want to reduce sexually transmitted infections and achieve a range of other public health benefits, we should focus on those strategies proven by the evidence to achieve them,  including comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education (which, before the flood of comments starts please note includes but is not limited to abstinence), and access to and use of barrier methods (or dual protection where there is risk of both pregnancy and infection).

In the original article, I suggested we focus on dramatically increased funding for these proven interventions, and also suggested 9 concrete recommendations the Administration could take to use its political mandate to end the bickering over these issues and fulfill the promise made by President Obama to ensure that science and evidence would guide public policy.

In response, one frequent visitor to Rewire, DerekP, wrote a comment under the heading “Not Very Appealing,” stating:

Your idea of common ground for pro-lifers is that they should just give up and become pro-choice (and probably support government funding of abortion). That doesn’t sound very appealing.

This sentiment is echoed by other comments throughout our site and also is inherent in the opposition to increased funding for critical programs like Title X by the institutional Catholic Church, as one example.

And therein lies the dilemma in which we find ourselves in these conversations: What do “I” get? Not what women need, not what couples do and how they act, not about healthy, safe sexual lives, but what do “I/we” as representatives of vested political interests, get out of this. What do the institutional Catholic Church and Evangelical fundamentalist Christians get? What does the “pro-life” politician from a conservative district get? What do ultra conservative Representatives Chris Smith and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen get?

But what DerekP, Jodi Jacobson, Chris Smith and the United States Council of Catholic Bishops “get” is (or should be) irrelevant to the real question: What do people need? What does the evidence say? We have to start with these two concepts to achieve the outcomes we say we desire.  Otherwise we are engaging in a dangerous political contest in which the real lives of real people are at stake. If DerekP and others are interested in reducing the need for abortion, then they should live their own lives the way the feel best for them, but also be able to support the broader investments and interventions shown to result in the outcomes we all claim to seek.

What does the evidence say about how real people act, what women need in regard to primary reproductive and sexual health care, what needs to be in place to ensure women—and men–can exercise their rights? What women “need” is clear not just from what they say, but also as expressed by their actual choices or their patterns of “voting with their feet” so to speak: In the United States, one-third of all women have at least one abortion during their reproductive years, and nearly all women use some form of contraception at some point in their lifetime. Women of all religious persuasions—Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Islamic–and all cultural backgrounds use contraception and abortion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control: 

Contraceptive use in the United States is virtually universal among women of reproductive age: 98 percent of all women who had ever had intercourse had used at least one contraceptive method. In 2002, 90 percent had ever had a partner who used the male condom, 82 percent had ever used the oral contraceptive pill, and 56 percent had ever had a partner who used withdrawal.

What women need, therefore is both access to contraception that addresses their changing needs throughout their lifecycle and access to safe abortion services. Ensuring universal access to contraception and to comprehensive sex ed, for example, will without question reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and ultimately of abortions. If these are the outcomes we seek, then we can’t let ideology drive the inputs.

Given this reality, the political demands of the (male) US Council of Catholic Bishops (among other religious institutions) should not be in the equation. At all. Especially not when even the laity of these institutions does not agree with the ideology in practice. I realize this is a controversial, even “blasphemous” suggestion if you will, but Catholic women clearly are much less squeamish about the issue than the Bishops.

It is true that I am pro-choice—I believe all people have the right to make decisions about sex and reproduction, including lifelong abstinence or consensual sex—and it is also true that I believe the pro-choice community generally represents women’s needs because the movement itself grew out of the advocacy of women and providers and advocates working on behalf of women they serve. But if we are really interested in solving the issues about which we profess to care, and if we are really interested in the health and wellbeing of people, then we should stop thinking about common ground between divergent political positions based on ideology—pro-choice, anti-choice, pro-life, Catholic, Protestant, etc–and start and end with the real needs of real people, letting evidence guide the way.

Because it is so often completely divorced from real evidence and the needs of real people, today’s common ground debate is similar to the constant talk about “bipartisanship.” “Common ground” and “bipartisanship” are political concepts and can be achieved by political entities seeking to serve their own political interests or ideologies while actually undermining public health and human rights.
Affected populations often are not even in the "room" literally or figuratively when the deals are cut.

Concrete example: In May 2003, Congress passed the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR, a landmark program authorizing $15 billion for efforts to end the global AIDS epidemic around the world, with a priority focus on 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
PEPFAR was hailed as a “victory” for promoters of common ground, bipartisanship, and “common sense compromise.” Advocates for AIDS treatment and care secured billions of dollars destined to increase access to anti-retroviral medication (ARVs) and to care needed by those suffering from AIDS-related illnesses. The Bush Administration put a much-needed “compassionate conservative” gloss on its otherwise bellicose and disastrous foreign policy. And Congress looked good for creating a new humanitarian program with what appeared to be bipartisan support. The mainstream media fell all over itself praising the legislation.

There was only one problem. The “common ground,” “common sense” compromises reached to pass PEPFAR came at the cost of the lives of untold numbers of women and youth. In fact, from the get-go, it was made clear the achievement of a “bipartisan,” “common ground” outcome and a good political photo op was the greatest priority irrespective of the policies contained in the legislation, as long as enough money was in the pot.
In the spring of 2003, Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, so “bipartisanship” was a somewhat questionable concept to begin with.

To get buy-in from Republicans on the unprecedented levels of funding sought for AIDS treatment and care, AIDS groups needed the support of conservative evangelical and Catholic leadership. And in exchange for that support, the USCCB and evangelical political leaders led by Rick Warren sought two things: first, they wanted prevention policy to be written in such a way as to ensure it was ideologically compatible with their own religious views, and second they wanted to secure funding for their own prevention programs in the field, despite the fact that their ideological position on such intrinsically important issues as safer sex meant they would be using federal tax dollars for what would in effect be religious purposes, and not to promote public health.

This “common ground bill” resulted in women and youth being pushed off a cliff.  The law contained an earmark requiring that 33 percent of all funding for prevention programs go to abstinence-until-marriage programs, which, as a result of even narrower program guidance, resulted in the allocation of 60 percent of all funds for prevention of sexual transmission going to abstinence-only-until marriage programs in the first several years. This was true despite the fact that the highest rates of new infection were found among women and youth who were already sexually active but did not have access to prevention services, information, and methods, and the fact that a growing number of infections in women were occurring “within marriage” and to women who themselves were faithful to their husbands.

Other policies included were also based on purely ideological considerations, such as those prohibiting organizations receiving US funds from working with organizations representing the human rights of sex workers and prohibiting syringe exchange programs for intravenous drug users.

Over the 5 years following passage of PEPFAR, an overwhelming body of evidence accumulated showing these policies did not work. In fact, as a recent Stanford University study showed, after spending some $20 billion of US taxpayer funds on global AIDS programs, US funding had made no contribution to slowing the spread of HIV in the countries receiving the most funding.

Put another way: untold numbers of women and youth were needlessly infected with HIV during the period of the greatest ever expenditure on a public health problem because our “common ground” solution was to cater to ideology over evidence. So there are now more people living with HIV who were unnecessarily infected as a result of misguided, ideologically-based US policy and the majority of them will never get access to treatment.

In 2008, this grave mistake in policy was repeated when, once again, the US Council of Catholic Bishops and evangelical groups insisted on stripping out changes to these damaging policies in exchange for supporting higher levels of funding in the PEPFAR reauthorization process. Another achievement for “common ground” and “bipartisanship,” and another loss for millions of innocent people at risk of HIV, and the likely waste of billions of taxpayer dollars at a time when we are unable to provide our own citizens with decent health care.

And yet, when I ask why in common ground debates we are not starting first with filling the estimated $300 million gap in Title X funding, for example, or ensuring that we pass the Prevention First Act, or demanding full funding of comprehensive sex education, or fully funding HIV prevention initiatives, I am constantly told the “Catholics” or the “Evangelicals” won’t agree to this.  When I ask why we are not confronting these issues for the sake of people’s health and lives, I am told we don’t have to agree on everything, and when I ask why we don’t push for what we know is right, I am told, "let’s reach common ground first and we can go on and work for our own principles."

Here is a dirty little secret: I heard the exact same arguments during the PEPFAR process and many other policy debates.  But…as is usally the  case, once Congress deals with one piece of legislation on a controversial issue, it is "done."  During the first and second rounds of PEPFAR authorizations, those of us concerned about evidence-based prevention were constantly told "we’ll fix it later," but later never came. 

Later still has not arrived.  Once the bill was passed, the message changed to "PEPFAR?  Huh?  We did that already."  Let’s face it: once the press release is "released" declaring "mission accomplished" on a controversial issue there is little to no impetus for Congresspeople to go back and reopen these debates again.  "Fixing it later," or getting the policy right afterward is more myth than reality in 95 percent of the cases. 

My questions are these: Are we more interested in some so-called common ground solution to claim “victory” for political interests or are we interested in the real victory of better health, reductions in unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections, and abortions that only evidence-based approaches can bring? 
Are we willing to risk the health and rights of people for an as-yet
unarticulated set of compromises that don’t address real needs?  Can we honestly say that insititutional actors whose ideological opposition to solid evidence should play a greater role in determining the lives and health of people–many of whom do not share the same religious ideology and the majority of which affiliated with the same institution do not adhere to the practices?

I know I will be called "politically naive," but I feel that to give in on the evidence before we have even fought the fight is to repeat mistakes made on PEPFAR, the recent stimulus bill, and any number of other policy issues where we either put our lowest ask on the table first without a fight or caved to conservative political pressure to once again "politicize" a public health issue. 

The only common ground that should matter is the one on which the vast majority of people in need of evidence-based sexual and reproductive health care are now standing.  Otherwise, we are standing on a precipice and the people most at risk have already been thrown off the cliff.

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:


In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

Appreciate our work?

Vote now! And help Rewire earn a bigger grant from CREDO:


The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.


Vote for Rewire and Help Us Earn Money

Rewire is in the running for a CREDO Mobile grant. More votes for Rewire means more CREDO grant money to support our work. Please take a few seconds to help us out!


Thank you for supporting our work!